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Air Quality Program

Outdoor Dust

A picture of a severe dust storm in Eastern Washington 2005.

Outdoor dust occurs throughout Washington, but in dry areas like Eastern Washington, dust is a significant air pollution problem. If you live in Eastern Washington, you have probably experienced dust storms. From spring through fall, high winds in the Columbia Plateau region can combine with dry weather conditions to disturb farm fields and other areas with disturbed soils resulting in dust storms. These dust storms can lead to extremely high levels of particle air pollution.

Current News and Information

Managing dust near Kennewick and Wallula

We’re focusing efforts to reduce dust in areas near Kennewick and Wallula because recent hot, dry summers have made soils vulnerable and extreme windstorms caused air quality values to go above federal air quality standards. The area is also called out in a federal rule and we’re required to update a plan for managing dust.

In the months ahead, we will update Wallula’s dust maintenance plan, produce a report that demonstrates the high values recorded at our Kennewick air monitoring station were naturally caused and develop a new plan that outlines strategies for reducing sources of dust that affect people near Kennewick and Wallula. We will also continue our work with the agriculture community to encourage farming practices that prevent erosion and windblown dust.

Exceptional Event Reports

An exceptional event is an unusual or naturally-occurring event that can affect air quality. Air pollution laws allow us to demonstrate that these events can’t be reasonably controlled can be omitted when determining that an area is meeting federal air quality standards.

We’re currently preparing a report to demonstrate that high winds on Aug. 14, 2015 overwhelmed agriculture erosion controls contributing to elevated levels of particle pollution being recorded in Kennewick.

The report will be available for public review and comment before submitting it to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval. We expect the report will be ready for review in the fall of 2017.

We received approval from EPA on our 2013 Exceptional Event Report for Kennewick. Three unusual thunderstorms created strong winds that carried dust and air pollution through Eastern Washington.

Information on the 2013 Exceptional Event Report

Updating the Wallula Dust Management Plan

A 144-square-mile area that includes Wallula is designated as an air quality maintenance area under federal rules because, historically, it didn’t meet standards for particle pollution. We developed a plan to manage the pollution in 2005 to cover the first ten years. Federal rules require an updated plan to cover another 10 years.

We’re developing an updated dust management maintenance plan that will be available for public review and comment sometime next year that will provide protection through 2025. The 2015 exceptional event report must be approved by EPA before we can finalize the updated plan.

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Your Health and Dust

Dust is made up of tiny particles (particulate matter). The smallest particles, known as PM10 and PM2.5, are too small to be filtered out by your nose and your body's other natural defense systems. Dust with these fine particles is inhaled deep into your lungs where they cause increased problems with:

  • Lung irritation.
  • Emphysema.
  • Asthma.
  • Bronchitis.
  • Cancer.
  • Heart disease.
  • Allergic reactions.
  • Other serious conditions that can lead to death.

What you can do

Breathing too much dust can potentially harm anyone. However, the following groups are at the highest risk:

  • Infants, children, teens, the elderly, and pregnant women.
  • People with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, or other respiratory conditions.
  • People with heart disease.
  • Healthy adults working or exercising outdoors (for example, agricultural workers, construction workers, and runners).

How to protect yourself and others

Since small dust particles are the most harmful, the best precaution is simply to avoid going outside when there is a lot of dust in the air.
If you must go out:

  • Spend as little time outside as possible
  • Avoid hard exercis
  • Wear some type of covering over your nose and mouth
  • staying out of areas of dust.
  • When driving, be alert for sudden changes in visibility and pull over if you have trouble seeing.

Dust storm warnings and notices

Sometimes it’s possible to know that a dust storm may occur. Most dust storms happen in the spring or fall, because of a combination of high winds, dry weather conditions, and uncovered fields. The National Weather Service announces high wind warnings, so your local news may be able to warn you in advance when conditions are ripe for a dust storm. You can sign up to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts about high wind warnings from the National Weather Service (visit for more information). The best thing to do is always be prepared.

How to Prepare for Dust Storms

Windblown dust can’t be completely controlled or avoided, but there are some things you can do to protect yourself during a dust storm. Be ready to stay inside and close your windows, vents, and doors, and plug drafts. If you have allergies or breathing problems, ask your health care provider or local health department what they recommend. If they suggest wearing a mask during a dust storm, buy some and keep them on hand. If dust is a serious health problem for you, your health care provider may advise you to be ready to leave the area during a dust storm.

Reduce Your Risk from Dust Storms

There are some things we can do to prevent windblown dust; but even our best efforts can be overwhelmed by drought and high winds. Farmers prevent and reduce dust by using less intensive tilling methods and planting cover crops that hold the soil in place. Dust controls at construction sites include working in phases to minimize the amount of exposed land area, and using dust suppressants or gravel on bare ground. Contact your local clean air agency or city or county planning department if there is a dust problem in your area. Big dust storms can’t be prevented, but throughout Washington, Ecology and our partners monitor air quality to measure amounts of pollution in the air. This helps pinpoint areas with levels of pollution that could cause health problems so we can work toward reducing and controlling pollution.

Dust Management

Ecology monitors the air for dust in many areas of Washington. Monitors track air quality to find out if areas meet national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).

When an exceptional event, like a thunderstorm, causes fine particle pollution to exceed the federal air pollution standards Ecology reports this to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Others Who Help Manage Dust
Local governments, the Environmental Protection Agency and others are also part of managing outdoor dust:

  • Local air agencies and city planning departments enforce rules that require dust control.
  • The federal Clean Air Act requires EPA to review NAAQS (standards) every 5 years to make sure the standards protect human health and the environment. The standards must protect groups of people who are most at risk from air pollution.
  • Farmers help by using voluntary practices that stabilize their fields to preserve soil and keep dirt from leaving their farms. See Natural Resource Conservation Service

Outdoor Dust Categories
Dust is categorized three ways:

  1. Windblown dust
    • Tilled, harvested, and fallow farm fields
    • Natural areas during highest winds
  2. Construction dust
    • While work is underway
    • Cleared and vacant land
  3. Fugitive dust
    • Paved and unpaved roads
    • Activities on vacant land or disturbed areas
    • Unpaved parking lots and equipment yards
    • Military training exercises

Exceptional Events

An exceptional event is an unusual or naturally-occurring event that can affect air quality, but cannot be reasonably controlled. Under air pollution laws, exceptional events are regulated differently than other sources of air pollution. For example, if a storm causes monitor readings to go over the federal limit and EPA agrees the reading was beyond our control, the high reading may be considered an exceptional event. The high reading then would not count when determining if an area meets the NAAQS standard.

Other Information:

For more information about dust control, contact your local air agency.

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